Liam Butler interviews former Medical Professor Richard Donald
What have you done to liberate yourself in retirement?
Since my father first started the Aged People’s Welfare Council (now Age Concern) our family have not been shy about discussing the subject of aging. As there is a strong family history of Alzheimers Disease, I resolved to retire early at the age of 60 to gather rosebuds while I still could. In retrospect it was a good move, even though I haven’t yet developed the disease. However I was young and flexible enough to cope when my wife announced that she had found a 300 year old small and dilapidated apartment in the south of France. This allowed us to lead two very different lives at opposite ends of the earth. It was a challenge linguistically and culturally but one that we wouldn’t have missed.
My first book, French Leave summarized our experiences and due to beginners luck, sold well. Travels Without a Donkey continued the traveller’s tales and included not only France but also other countries we had visited during retirement and my previous life as an endocrinologist (specialist in glands and hormones). I had been fortunate to be involved with this specialty during an exciting time when it became possible to measure hormones, although they are present in the bloodstream in vanishingly small concentrations. My father’s diagnoses were based on experience. Mine had the benefit of scientific data. Pure hormones were also becoming available.
On retiring, I put endocrinology behind me, with the exception of a story called A Tall Tale in which I describe a possible get-rich-quick scheme involving the use of growth hormone to cure middle age spread (it works by increasing muscle and reducing fat but is fiendishly expensive) and to increase the growth rate of small boys whose parents want them to become big (and therefore statistically more successful) businessmen. My present book, Corrupted on the Côte d’Azur has a scene in an intensive care unit but mainly draws on my knowledge of the French and Italian Rivieras. It is a crime novel which uses a quote from Sir Francis Bacon as its theme, “Laws were like cobwebs, where the small flies are caught and the great break through.”
The second book I wrote, Painting out the Past. The Life and Art of Patricia France is the most relevant to the golden years. Patricia had attempted to survive in Auckland society, but this proved difficult because of a shortage of money. She described herself as “A failed Auckland socialite.” Her mother then developed Alzheimers disease and there were other problems in the family. She became depressed and was eventually admitted to Ashburn Hall, a private psychiatric hospital in Dunedin where she learned to paint. At the age of 65 she had her first public exhibition with the famous painter, Ralph Hotere, and it was a sellout. In the 1970s and 80s she continued to have at least two successful exhibitions a year throughout New Zealand.
So the message I am trying to impart, I suppose, is that retirement does not need to be the end and can in fact be the start of a new and satisfying career. At the beginning of the 1990s Patricia’s eyesight was severely impaired, but painting had become her raison d’être and she couldn’t stop. I have been lucky enough to modify the basic writing skills I picked up as a scientific writer and adapt them to travel writing, biography and crime. I am now free to use my imagination (frowned on in scientific writing) and am not inhibited by having to find a reference for every statement I make. I feel liberated at last!
Copies of Travels Without a Donkey; Corrupted on the Cote d’Azur; and Painting out the Past. The Life and Art of Patricia France are available through Richard Donald, 8 Collingwood Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland 1011 for $25, $30 and $35 respectively.